James Baldwin Biography

African American author James Baldwin, primarily explores issues of injustice and identity. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953) and his essay collections, like Notes of a Native Son (1955) are among his better-known works. 

Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin never knew his biological father, his mother was impoverished, and his stepfather was abusive. Baldwin himself was gay and had to live, oppressed not only by intolerance toward his skin color, but also toward his sexuality.

To escape being pigeon-holed as a writer and as a person, Baldwin traveled to Europe in 1948, though still spent much of his life in the United States, for instance in 1957, while the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress. 

Facts and Trivia

  • Baldwin became a preacher at the age of fourteen and delivered sermons for three years, but he later left the church entirely.
  • Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain not in Harlem, the city of his upbringing and setting of the novel, but in Switzerland.
  • Baldwin was of great interest to the F.B.I., which purportedly held more than 1,750 files on his activities.
  • One of Baldwin’s most quoted maxims is “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987

Article abstract: During the racial unrest in the United States in the 1960’s, Baldwin was the most visible and respected literary figure in the Civil Rights movement. His best work has focused on racial concerns and on homosexuality.

Early Life

James Baldwin, the son of Berdis Jones Baldwin and the...

(The entire section contains 1987 words.)

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Article abstract: During the racial unrest in the United States in the 1960’s, Baldwin was the most visible and respected literary figure in the Civil Rights movement. His best work has focused on racial concerns and on homosexuality.

Early Life

James Baldwin, the son of Berdis Jones Baldwin and the stepson of David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher, was born and grew up in New York City’s black ghetto, Harlem; he was the oldest of nine children. By the time he was fourteen years old, Baldwin, then a student in New York’s De Witt Clinton High School, was preaching in Harlem’s Fireside Pentecostal Church. His earliest writing appeared in The Magpie, his high school’s student newspaper, to which he contributed three stories before becoming coeditor in chief, a job he shared with fellow student Richard Avedon.

Upon graduation from high school in 1942, Baldwin, rejected for military service, took a job working for a railroad in New Jersey. He had just renounced the church and, although he never went back to it and scorned Christianity for what he perceived as its racism, much of the rhythm of black preaching and much of the drama of evangelical church services are found in most of his work. Baldwin sought refuge in the church during an uncertain period in his adolescence, but as he analyzed seriously his position as both a member of a racial minority and a homosexual, he found in literature more helpful solutions to the problems that plagued him than he had found in religion.

Between 1942 and 1944, Baldwin held menial jobs, some of them in the thriving wartime defense industries. A turning point came for him in 1944, when, having moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, he met Richard Wright, one of the leading black writers in the United States. Baldwin was working on his first novel, “In My Father’s House,” at that time. Although the novel remained unpublished, Wright arranged for Baldwin to receive the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust so that he could concentrate on his writing. Baldwin first appeared in print in 1946 in The Nation, where he published a book review. He also wrote book reviews for The New Leader during the same year.

In 1948, Baldwin, slight of stature and with a countenance that reflected both intensity and anguish, received the Rosenwald Fellowship. This award enabled him to move to Paris. That year, he also published an essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” and a short story, “Previous Condition,” in Commentary. Baldwin was to live abroad for the next decade, in the middle of which his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was published.

Life’s Work

Baldwin’s first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room (1956), are autobiographical. The former concentrates on the problems of growing up black in a predominantly white United States. The book explores the impact that religion has had on the black experience in the United States and accurately depicts the economic and social struggles with which black families cope on a regular basis. The book is also concerned with the sexual tensions that exist for the black who is coming of age and who is beset by deep-seated interracial conflicts.

Giovanni’s Room, set in France, was one of a rash of novels on homosexuality to appear between 1948 and 1956. The protagonist’s lover, Giovanni, kills an older man who forces him into a sexual encounter and is duly tried, found guilty, and executed for this crime. David, the protagonist, has to cope not only with the guilt of his homosexuality but also with feelings of not having been the loyal friend that Giovanni needed.

When Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared, Baldwin was working on a play, The Amen Corner, that was performed at Howard University in 1954 but that took nearly a decade to reach Broadway, where it was produced in 1964 largely because of the New York success of Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, which the American National Theater Association (ANTA) brought to Broadway in the spring of 1964.

The publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain led to Baldwin’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, which afforded him the opportunity to do extensive revisions on The Amen Corner and to complete his much-acclaimed Notes of a Native Son (1955), a fierce, well-written book that articulates the outrage which Baldwin, as a sensitive black American, felt because of the social inequities that face blacks. Perhaps this book makes its greatest impact with its contention that racial hatred destroys not only the objects of that hatred but also the people who are possessed by it. Notes of a Native Son was to become one of the most influential statements about racial inequality during the Civil Rights movement that was beginning to gain momentum in the late 1950’s and that emerged full-blown in the 1960’s.

Giovanni’s Room brought Baldwin increased recognition in the form of a Partisan Review Fellowship and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He returned to the United States from France in 1957 and made his first visit to the South. He wrote about this trip in both Harper’s Magazine and Partisan Review. A Ford Foundation grant-in-aid enabled him in November, 1959, to return to Paris, where he spent the winter. On returning to the United States in the spring of 1960, Baldwin wrote articles for Esquire and Mademoiselle. In the late summer, he went to Tallahassee, Florida, as a participant in strategy sessions held by the newly formed Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and in so doing he cast his lot with the activists in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1961, Baldwin published another collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. This collection, vivid and subtle, emphasizes that blacks are simultaneously like and unlike other people. Baldwin depicts the black quest as a quest for love and for acceptance at the personal and interpersonal levels as well as at the broader social level.

Baldwin held that humankind’s only possible salvation is love, although as time passed, Baldwin became increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of the human race approaching the idyllic state that, he cautioned in his two earliest collections of essays, must be achieved if the race is to survive. Baldwin accused Americans of not judging individuals by their work but rather of leaping to conclusions about them based on preexisting stereotypes.

In his next novel, Another Country (1962), Baldwin dealt with love between a black woman and a white man who defy the conventions of their society and whose quest is to discover their own and each other’s real identities. Again, Baldwin emphasizes that people are individuals. It does not matter with whom or how they pursue love. Society and its mores should have nothing to do with such matters because it is the individuals and their love that are all-important. In the year in which Another Country was published, Baldwin traveled to Africa in an attempt to find a closer identity with his heritage.

Baldwin’s collection of essays issued under the title The Fire Next Time (1963) focuses on the mental and spiritual turmoil of American blacks. Enthusiastically received by Civil Rights activists of the time, the book won for Baldwin the George Polk Memorial Award. Though he lived largely outside the United States, Baldwin had become the undisputed literary leader of the Civil Rights movement.

Going to Meet the Man (1965) appeared shortly after Blues for Mister Charlie and The Amen Corner were presented on Broadway. Interest in Baldwin was high. His next novel, however, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), was badly misfocused and did not have the impact of much of his earlier work. Some critics thought that Baldwin was on a downhill course after the publication of this book. No Name in the Street (1972), One Day, When I Was Lost (1972), and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) did little to recapture his fading reputation. His collaborations, Nothing Personal (1964) with Richard Avedon, A Rap on Race (1971) with Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue (1975) with Nikki Giovanni, were not taken as seriously as his earlier works had been. He redeemed himself, however, in the eyes of many readers with Just Above My Head (1979), a novel about a child evangelist which reiterates much that Baldwin had previously written about the need for love and for judging people as individuals.

The Devil Finds Work (1976) was received with some critical indifference, but The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), on the Atlanta child murders and the trial of the alleged killer, has had a significant impact and was considered of sufficient importance to be reprinted by the American Bar Association. Baldwin’s nonfiction writing has been collected in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (1985).

Summary

James Baldwin served as the conscience of the Civil Rights movement and as the conscience of liberal whites, to whom he pointed out that the destructive force of racial intolerance and bigotry is felt not only by those at whom it is aimed but also by those within the dominant society. Baldwin’s voice was anguished, but he was a well-informed spokesperson for the cause of racial equality, having been brought up in a society from which he continually felt alienated. Not only was Baldwin able to identify the problems caused by racial strife, but, more important, he was able to propose an overall solution based upon love and acceptance.

Baldwin usually communicated more persuasively in his essays than he did in his novels, where he sometimes fell victim to the problem that he warned others against, that of dealing with stereotypes rather than with well-defined individuals.

Bibliography

Clark, Kenneth B. The Negro Protest: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Talk with Kenneth B. Clark. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Clark’s interview with Baldwin focuses more on the writer’s political stance than on him as a literary figure. The portion of the book devoted to Baldwin provides strong insights into his moral philosophy and into his hopes for the human race, which he was later to moderate.

Eckman, Fern Marja. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. New York: M. Evans, 1966. Eckman’s critical biography depicts the inner tumult that was the driving force behind Baldwin’s most forceful writing. Shows the effect that Baldwin’s religious upbringing and that his own early religious involvement had in shaping his thinking.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. These thirteen well-chosen and representative essays deal with Baldwin from a variety of critical standpoints. They range from critical biography to essays on Baldwin’s ontology. The editor provides a penetrating, short introduction.

Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Third Press, 1973. This study focuses on Baldwin’s inner torment and relates it directly to the religious influences of his early youth. Claims that much of his best writing is an attempt to exorcise his personal dread of Hell.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. Contains one of the best considerations of Baldwin’s prose style as well as insights into his Americanness and his ability to focus on his alienation particularly when he was living abroad. The twenty-two essays in the book are enhanced by a comprehensive bibliography, which, although dated, provides a good starting point for researchers.

Pratt, Louis H. James Baldwin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1978. An excellent overview with a well-selected bibliography and a succinct but useful chronological table. The book is sometimes more event-oriented than idea-oriented. It will, however, be serviceable to readers lacking familiarity with Baldwin and his work.

Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980. A brief but valuable study, balancing Baldwin, the political activist, and Baldwin, the writer. The book is carefully thought out and objective. The bibliography is also useful.

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